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Preventing Wildfire In San Diego County

Evening Edition

The threat of devastating wildfires is a fact of life in California. CalFire says it has a prevention plan. But critics in Southern California say using prescribed burns to clear vast tracts of land isn't the answer.

Aired 8/29/13 on KPBS Midday Edition.


Thom Porter, Unit Chief, San Diego CalFire


The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is proposing a "vegetation treatment" plan to protect California from future wild fires.

The plan proposes the use of prescribed burns, chopping down, weeding and herbicides on tens of millions of acres of state and federal lands across California for the next 30 years.

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Cal Fire said the vegetation treatment plan is necessary because of an increasing number of severe wildfires over the last 30 years, and an increasing population in the state with millions living in rural or fire-prone areas.

In the executive summary of the project proposal, the agency points to the influence of climate change on wildfire severity.

It says an increase in drought, predictions of higher temperatures and more grasslands all point to the need for the vegetation treatment plan.

The controlled burn method to reduce the intensity of wildfires has been in operation for years. It has also been the target of criticism, especially in Southern California.

A public hearing was held in Ventura on August 8 to discuss the project after state agencies received thousands of letters against it.

Rick Halsey is a biologist and director of the California Chaparral Institute. He said the plan is a "major threat to nature" in California because one-third of the state lands would be cleared. Halsey said prescribed burns, which make up more than 50 percent of the vegetation treatment plan, don't actually work to prevent wildfire in San Diego County because it's not a one-size-fits-all-ecosystems plan.

Halsey said, in the cooler climate of Northern California, burning vast areas of dense forest could be effective. But he said, Southern California's arid climate and the native landscape renders the same techniques unsuccessful.

He pointed to the recent Silver Fire, which burned 20,000 acres and destroyed 26 homes near Banning, as a challenge to the theory that prescribed burns prevent fires in Southern California.

Halsey said because the Silver Fire burned in part of the footprint of the 2006 Esmerelda Fire, it proves that young vegetation can carry a fire, which is contrary to what proponents of prescribed burns say.

Halsey said there are other ways to protect homes in San Diego County from wildfires. Instead, the plan should focus on buffering individual properties, he said.

"Science has clearly shown now over the last 10, 15 years that the best place to do the vegetation treatment that they're proposing is right around communities," he said. "Encourage defensible space around homes, put the community golf course right up against the forest instead in the middle of the community — there's a lot of things that you can do to create a permanent solution."

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Avatar for user 'Rick Halsey'

Rick Halsey | August 30, 2013 at 9:25 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

An open letter to Thom Porter, San Diego Cal Fire Unit Chief.

Chief Porter, I wanted to point out several inaccuracies in your interview with KPBS on 8/30/13.

First, I have indeed visited the site of the Silver Fire near Banning. You were incorrect when you stated I have not and have only made my conclusions about the fire from afar. As you know, the area that was burned has tremendous significance for anyone connected to the fire service. Hence, my desire to make sure whatever I said about the fire was accurate. Please view the photos I took of the site and read the attached captions in the album linked below:

Second, public hearings and meetings in which an agency listens to stakeholders is not what collaboration looks like. Although we have appreciated the opportunities to speak during the two meetings you mentioned, collaboration involves working with others, not just receiving public comment required by state law. It is our hope that the state will continue the collaborative process that has begun so all of us can participate in the development of a comprehensive, science-based vegetation management/fire safety plan that will be truly effective in protecting lives, property, and the native habitat from wildfire without destroying California's priceless natural environment.

Finally, as you know from the past ten years of testimony, public hearings, and conferences, the fire science community has rejected the notion that if we let fires burn, the landscape "will turn into a natural system of a small patchwork of fires." There are not "two camps" on the subject. The data is clear and the debate is over. Large, intense fires like the 1889 Santiago Canyon Fire, are an inevitable part of the southern California, chaparral-covered landscape, and they will likely continue to be, especially in light of climate change. We must do what we can to help communities adapt to this reality through zoning, fire resistant construction and retrofits, appropriate defensible space, and strategic fuel breaks near communities at risk in conjunction with firefighter safety zones.

Spending millions of dollars clearing vast areas of wildland is not a sustainable approach.

I continue to look forward to working with Cal Fire to create a fire risk reduction plan that we can all support.

Richard Halsey
California Chaparral Institute

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | August 30, 2013 at 11:15 a.m. ― 3 years, 6 months ago

I hope Cal Fire and the California Legislature listen to Rick Halsey and stop destroying healthy chaparral.

Halsey's sustainable science-based approach to fire management makes sense. Especially considering the current "controlled burn" method is not only ineffective and expensive, but destructive to our environment.

I would also like to see some greater restrictions over building permits to limit the incursion of sprawling housing developments into fire-prone areas.

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